In 2020, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Aspen Tucker was working as a nurse at a hospital in his home country of Spartanburg, South Carolina, earning nearly $2,000 per fortnightly salary. When he saw a posting for a traveling nursing job in Amarillo, Texas, paying $6,700 a week, he was practically on the next flight.
“I hate to say this, but I didn’t give any notice. I got my stuff, I went to Texas, and I told my boss when I got there, ‘I’m sorry, I have to go.'” This is a once in a lifetime opportunity,” Tucker told CNBC Make It.
Tucker, now 29, has been on the road ever since, landing four- to 13-week travel and nursing contracts. While on contract, he typically works 48 to 60 hours per week, working long shifts to maximize overtime pay.
The point of all that extra time is downtime. Tucker only works nine months out of the year and spends the rest of his time in South Carolina or on vacation. His income in 2024: $187,000.
“I love living in Spartanburg and being a travel nurse,” he says. “Spartanburg has a small-town feel to it. I know everyone here. I have family here.” “The big advantage is the low cost of living in South Carolina. I can get a high salary as a travel nurse, but come back where the cost of living is low.”
For someone like Tucker, who says he’s dreamed of traveling since childhood, travel nursing offers some obvious appeal. His jobs have taken him everywhere, from Rhode Island to California.
As a profession, it is undoubtedly a price performance. Tucker began his career as a travel nurse after earning his associate’s degree. On average, a four-year college degree will cost about $29,000 a year, compared to just over $11,000 for a two-year degree, according to the latest Data from the National Center for Education Statistics.
A more expensive education often coincides with a higher salary. The median annual wage among American workers with a bachelor’s degree is about $69,000, According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Those with an undergraduate degree average just over $50,000.
Traveling and nursing is a trend – but it’s not for everyone. It comes with personal and financial disadvantages.
Spending time away from family
Life on the road means taking time away from your usual support system. “I’m away from home, I’m away from my family, I’m away from my dog,” says Tucker. “I’m out of my comfort zone—usually in different cities or different states. It has its challenges.”
Tough work environment
Hospitals bring in travel nurses when they need additional staff pronto, so there’s no time to lighten things up.
“As a nurse, you may have eight, 10 or 13 weeks to get it [integrated] Working there, but as a travel nurse you get a day off,” says Tucker. That may mean learning a new workflow amid language barriers or with staff who aren’t happy you’re there.
Tucker says it’s not unusual for nurses to ask him about his salary.
“They’re thinking in their mind, ‘This company doesn’t want to pay us, but they’re willing to pay someone to come here for a short period of time to make that kind of money.'” “There is a little bit of hostility,” he says.
Intermittent health care
Furthermore, travel nurses pay health insurance premiums when they are under contract but not covered between jobs. “I try to think smart and get everything done while I’m under this contract,” says Tucker.
More recently, that meant having wisdom teeth extracted while working in California.
It also means that when he’s on a break, learn to live with caution. “I used to play a lot of basketball and stuff. And now I’m like, If I don’t have health insurance, I can’t go ahead and break my leg.”
If you don’t want to live a completely nomadic lifestyle, being on the road means paying twice as much for a lot of things.
In December 2024, Tucker, while working in Fresno, California, paid a mortgage on his Spartanburg home, plus the cost of a long-term Airbnb stay. He paid a car fare for the month in addition to his truck fare. He also took care of his living expenses while paying his friends to walk his dogs and watch over his house and cars.
Tucker’s Affordability Solution: Earn extra income from real estate. He recently bought a duplex in Spartanburg and is renting out half of the house to a long-term tenant while listing the other half on Airbnb. He plans to rent out his primary residence as well when he’s out of town.
In fact, this is how Tucker hopes to use the real estate income to replace or supplement his salary when he eventually stops sponsoring travel.
“I want to create more real estate opportunities for myself [so] That I can work less and less.”
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paying off: The 29-year-old traveling nurse jumped at an opportunity to earn $187k and only work 9 months a year: It’s a ‘once in a lifetime opportunity’